One of the biggest gifts along my brain injury journey was also the hardest to hear: “I’m sorry your life got ruined,” a well-meaning friend sympathized one day. Her words landed like bricks. Wait, I thought to myself, was she right? Was my life really ruined? Was I the last to know of my own obvious fate?
I went home and ruminated on her comment.
Two weeks earlier had started off like any day. I’d woken up in the morning, dressed my toddler son, and then walked him through the park across the street from our home. I didn’t know that my husband’s body lay crumpled and seizing on the front porch of a neighbor’s house only five blocks away, fighting to stay alive as his brain bled following an attack with a baseball bat.
Looking back, it seems strange to think I wasn’t as attuned to our grave misfortune as this acquaintance was, but my heart was in the throes of a massive battle: struggling to accept reality as I sent audacious prayers into the universe.
And this is the crux of the brain injury journey: learning to balance pragmatism with hope. Learning to accept unimaginable loss as you build unimaginable dreams side-by-side. Was my old life ruined? Yes. Someone died that day that we all continue to grieve for, maybe no one more so than my husband himself. But was my next life ruined? Absolutely not.
Her words triggered inside me a fight that would transform ashes into flames. My signature moxie suddenly powered full-blast. Would I allow anyone or any event to dictate the outcome of my existence? Would I toss my hands in the air and fold my cards just because that’s what life seemed to be inviting me to do? No. Instead, I would prove her wrong. I would prove everything wrong. I would salvage what was still good from under a mountain of wreckage and use it to mold the life to come next. I would be the sculptor, the artist, the creator of my own destiny. I would not let anyone else choose for me. If my life was ruined, I’d be the one to make that call.
There were many days over the next few months in which I did make that call, days in which my own body lay crumpled and beaten, defeated by the challenge of loving someone who was so limited in his ability to love me back. Some days I stared back at the universe and conceded. You win, I’d cry. I cannot be the artist today. Today I give up. Today I rest.
But just as surely, the next day I’d find myself suiting up for battle. The desire to regain control, to be the exception, fueled me to carry on. Hope is the wellspring that compels us all to live better. To be hopeful is to stake one’s faith in the power of possibility, the notion that positive transformation may be just around the corner. Without this hope, without my audacious prayers, I surely would have folded my cards more often.
As I’ve written in previous blogs, I’m often at a loss for how to comfort those at the beginning of their TBI journeys. It’s hard to escape the desire to offer a tangible fix for the terrible pain I know all too well. But perhaps the most generous gift we can give those who are struggling is to keep our hands off their dreams, to give them the space and freedom to imagine a new world, a new life for themselves.
“You must not ever stop being whimsical,” writes one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. “And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”
Brain injury may be the ruiner of a past life, but it is not the ruiner of a future one.